Assessing the Cost of a Facilitator

Assessing the Cost of a Facilitator

This post on assessing the cost of a facilitator is one in an occasional series to help guide those looking to hire a facilitator.  If your questions about facilitation are not answered, please don’t hesitate to email me and I will be glad to help!

The search term that causes many people to end up on my website is some variation of “what does a facilitator cost.” So accordingly, one of the most accessed posts on my blog is a short discussion on the cost of hiring a facilitator.  In that post, I argue that looking at the simple dollar cost of a facilitator is not the starting point for thinking about facilitation costs.  The cost of not hiring a facilitator, the value of the return on your investment, and the value of the long-term consulting relationship are better starting places.  In this post, I want to delve a little deeper into pondering the mechanics of figuring out how much it costs to contract with a facilitator simply because there is interest in the topic.  So once you estimated what you need in a facilitator and are clear what the return on investment might be, how do you assess the cost of hiring a facilitator?  I would suggest five principles.

Assessing Expertise: The first principle is that there is value in academic preparation and professional experience. I would like to suggest that the value of any consultant is found in what expertise s/he brings to your organization and what that expertise is worth to your agency.  For example, if you are a small office or nonprofit agency and your computer network crashes, you are likely willing to call a computer network consultant and write him or her a check as fast as the network is restored.  Likewise, if you hire an accounting consultant to audit your books, you generally know what expertise you are paying for.  However, in the case of a facilitation consultant, one does not need any credential to use that label.  You can’t fake the repair of a computer network very well and you can’t fake an audit (okay one could fake an audit but it might end that person up in jail) but you can fake being a facilitator.  And many do.  So I would suggest two measures of evaluating a facilitator.

On one level there needs to be some indication of academic preparation.  What academic or theoretical training does the facilitator bring to the table? So, for example, I have two Masters degrees related to program planning, organization theory, and learning theory.  In addition, I have taken a couple of variations of a facilitation leadership courses and also have mediation and facilitation training from a community mediation center.  I also worked for 3 years on a team that had a nationally known organizational development consultant as a facilitation trainer and coach as we hosted large regional and national conferences.

On a second level but equally important is that the consultant should have a depth of knowledge and experience across an array of business sectors.  There needs to be a professional depth from which the facilitator can draw from.  You can’t fake experience.  If a facilitator has one 4 year marketing job out of college s/he must be valued differently than someone with 20 years of experience across multiple sectors before s/he became a consultant.

Assessing Billing Rate Transparency:  A second principle relates to the transparency of billing rates.  If you dig around online it won’t take you long to find a facilitator database.  Facilitators can add a listing to this database and every time the database matches a facilitator with a client they take a “finder fee.”  If you search the database for Oregon you will find consultants with a daily billing rate of $1,500 – $5,000.  Remember that those numbers are likely padded to cover the “finder fee” but the point I want to make is the range of billing rates is staggering.  It gets more complicated when you hire a consulting group, where the billing rate for the senior partner may be $225/hour or more and a junior partner may bill at $90/hour.  Having said all that, take a deep breath.  In my very local and practical world, based on numerous facilitators I know and/or have worked with, I can say that a qualified but inexperienced facilitator (who can run a decent meeting) bills in the $80-$110/hour range, a junior facilitator bills in the $140-$180 range, and an experienced facilitator who also has content expertise  will bill at over $200/hour. 

In looking at billing rates, the more important variable is transparency in the billing rates.  I once evaluated facilitator proposals for a company and could clearly see that some consultants were, in essence, bidding the job based on the experience of the senior facilitator and only in the details did I ferret out that the majority of work was to be done by junior and inexperienced facilitators. How much the facilitator is charging and for what experience level is being delivered in return can become a game of smoke and mirrors when multiple people bill at different rates on a project.

To me, the equalizer is finding comparable firms in terms of experience and expertise relative to the complexity of the project.  Simple facilitation assignments could be had for $90/hour but when the stakes are higher and the complexity increases you might be paying at the $140/hour rate or higher. Once you are clear about what you want and find similarly priced facilitators, figuring our comparable rates becomes somewhat easier.

Assessing Process and Product:  The third principle is to carefully consider if you are seeking to pay for a process or product or both.  A facilitator responsible for delivering a strategic plan at the end of the process is different than a facilitator delivering a strategic planning process.  I once was part of a process where the facilitator spent the first 3 hours of a one day retreat doing art therapy as a team-building exercise and at the end of the day, we failed to create the forward-thinking plan that was the core task of the day.  Who pays for that lost time and energy?  It depends.  Was the facilitator hired to deliver a product or hired to simply run a good meeting?  Often facilitation contracts are not clear enough about the deliverables and the consequences of failing to deliver. So in negotiating with facilitators concreteness of expectations is an important and critical discussion and often paying for the deliverable is a better strategy than paying a facilitator by the hour.

Assessing Depth of Tools: Fourth on the list of principles is assessing the degree to which the facilitator is willing to customize and tailor the process.  I have seen more than one facilitator in my experience, take a single hammer out of his or her toolbox and apply that hammer equally to every facilitation assignment.  If the process proposed sounds like it came straight from a “facilitation 101” textbook then it probably is.  there will be a case when you can get by with a simple facilitation but the range of tools a facilitator brings to the table is often the distinguishing characteristic between good meetings and performance improvement.

Assessing References: The fifth principle is about reference checking.  I have done reference checking on facilitators before and my experience is few, very few, references will give critical analysis.  The reference check invariably is positive.  Why else would they be a reference?  Get specific. Tell me about a time when the facilitator managed conflict.  What did s/he do and what was the outcome?  What did s/he do when the process of off track?  Were all deliverable met on time or was there slippage?  Describe that slippage.  Even then, references often don’t yield much useful information.  So take references with a grain of salt.

Assessing the Relationship:  The final principle comes back to relationships. Creating a facilitation contract needs to have a relational aspect of trust.  You have to feel comfortable with the person you are bringing into the culture and fabric of your organization.  Relationship and trust is the flip side of clear communication and expectations.  However, I would caution against allowing the relational dimension overshadow the due diligence associated with the previous principles. Relationships matter but competency, experience, transparency, and deliverables matter as much if not more.

Again, there is no easy answer to the question related to how much does facilitation cost.  Cost is directly related to the outcomes being sought and the degree to which solutions are customized and tailored to your needs.  Cost also related to competency and experience supported by a process of due diligence.  Thinking deeply, being clear about expectations, engaging in dialogue and getting it in writing will all help you have confidence in the investments in facilitation and process.

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Photo Credit: Benjamin Child

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.